Where were you a year ago? Were you better off? Worse off? In a different city, a different country? Not yet in a relationship, about to be a parent, learning you had to say goodbye to someone who is now gone?
Change happens daily, hourly, yet the magnitude of it lies in wait like a song slowly rising to a crescendo over the course of a year. Then, it hits a high note – higher than you ever expected – and you think, “my god, where did THAT come from?” I look back over the last ~364.25 days at and see so many differences from the year before it’s hard to pick out the individual changes. Like the notes in a song, they all blur together. Some phrases do stand out, however: new themes, transitions, sudden changes in rhythm and tempo, and, of course, the surprise endings.
Surprise! Someone I’ve known since she was a tiny baby went to college – on a full scholarship, no less. Way to go Clare! Your self-described mission is to end human trafficking. 18 years ago, when you were born, I was the age you are today, and not nearly as directed. You’ll make the world a better place, I know. Speaking of born, three fresh-baked humans joined my fold this year. This is a big deal, particularly in a group like mine that doesn’t make new people all that often. You three are the children of doctors and engineers. Your parents and we, their friends, will see to it that you have the best of everything. The world is already a better place because you are in it.
18 years ago, I was, funny enough, working on Mars Suit design at UC Berkeley. I was in excellent company, and I still know many people from that epoch of space-time. The fact that we’re still working on Mars suit design, a generation later, should say something about the scale of these endeavors.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and these days we don’t colonize planets in a decade or two. The pace at which we’re going interplanetary seems exasperatingly slow at times, I know. We haven’t dedicated ourselves to interplanetary travel in a way that’s forced innovation’s hand. For better and worse, we’ve had other ambitions. The even greater truth – the one that keeps me going even after 18 years – is that there is abundant evidence that we are capable of tipping the scales of creation towards almost any end, including colonizing another planet. Radical technological acceleration has occurred in places that matter to people in their daily lives: smart phones, smart cars, touch-screen tablets, 128 GB SD cards in 250 megapixel cameras, reusable orbital rockets, hollow organs grown in labs, with solid organs coming up behind them. I look at our suit design and think, “If you were a consumer item, you would have been built yesterday.”
I look at Mars and think: if we wanted to be there, we would be there. It’s not that easy, but in many ways it is that simple. Will breeds resources: time, money, and manpower. After decades of lukewarm warm-ups and false-starts, it feels as though the will to make this interplanetary masterpiece a reality is rising, becoming palpable, and preparing to make its grand debut. It feels good. For whatever else space travel is – a Herculean labor, a implacable challenge, a conundrum, an immense investment at all levels of society – it has always sounded like us. The ongoing attempt to become interplanetary is authentically human.
Speaking of ongoing attempts, this time last year, I was halfway through something else I’d been plugging away at for a couple of decades. My first science article ran in The Daily Californian in 1997 (a full-page piece on Comet Hale-Bopp). That I could pursue a graduate degree in journalism in 2014 was entirely due to profound generosity. Thomas Campbell Jackson, the man who produced Particle Fever, put me through school so that I could better communicate what science does, and why, and how it makes the world a better place. In the process, I met two dozen incredible people. I never would have known these women – yes, my USC Masters of Journalism class was all female – and today, I can’t imagine my life without them. First, because they are outstanding writers. You can judge for yourself by following these links. Second, because we’re all here to make journalism great, which is to say, to turn information into useful and pertinent knowledge and increase the world’s net intelligence. You can never know enough people like that. Lastly, for a whole nine months, I was not the strongest-willed, the most outspoken, or the most opinionated person in the room. It was unspeakably refreshing. Every one of them is out there, right now, being awesome.
This year, I also thank the Universe for everyone’s health. I have 4 grandparents over the age of 90, two friends being actively treated for cancer, and several hundred good friends scattered across the face of the Earth, and, bless it, NOBODY died. STRONG work, people! It was a good year for that, with one exception. We take a moment to think of Victor, a young man, and a very funny one, gone too soon. They played Amazing Grace on the bagpipes at the ISS for you, my friend. Hail and farewell.
I met Victor in this last year when I took my first, and it turned out, pivotal step into simulated space. This year, thanks to HERA, I learned something about piloting a space plane – and how it makes your fellow mission specialist laugh out loud when you keep your promise to crash it before the simulation is done. The commander for our HERA IV mission, Ethan, is standing in NASA mission control right now, helping payloads make their way to the ISS. The mission specialist who laughed at me is very gamely on mission control for my current mission. The flight engineer from that mission is… currently downstairs talking to the space architect about art, and software integration and – hold on – a movie called Sharknado 2. Interesting. Like most sounds in this 1,200 square foot dome, their voices are carrying up the stairwell, straight through my thin plywood door and into my 9x5x7 foot bunk. In a minute or two, I’ll head down there and say hi on my way to the kitchen to see about rehydrating lunch.
All of this is possible, as I’ve mentioned, through generosity, a lot of luck, and no small amount of forgiveness. There are things that we’ve all wanted for ourselves and for the world – things we’ve been unable to produce or provide, in spite of repeated attempts and a fantastic amount of effort. Some of these are small: getting published somewhere, anywhere; losing a few pounds; finishing a certain book. On the other end of the spectrum stand Mars Suits, Mars missions, and stemming the tide of epidemics – obesity, violence, and environmental disaster. We all have big dreams and small, and disappointment to suit all sizes. To see those dreams made into reality, we have to forgive the fact that, so for, we haven’t succeeded. Forgiveness for lack of success is needed in order for hope to carry us forward. There are scorched launchpads at Cape Canaveral that serve as memorials to missions attempted and lives lost. Is that failure? The embodiment of disappointment? If we’d never launched another shuttle or stopped reaching for space altogether, it would be. 18 years and a lot of forgiveness later, I’m a doctor-journalist on a simulated Mars mission trying to design a Mars suit. It’s a better place than I was in even a year ago. It’s where I was trying to get to for all those years. I hope that wherever this finds you, you, too, are better off in some palpable way. If not, wherever you are now, in 2016 may grace, good fortune, and forgiveness conspire to bring to you the place you’ve been trying to reach, and beyond.